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Older prison inmates in Utah now in line for COVID-19 vaccinations

State reports 859 new COVID-19 cases, 2 more deaths

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Utah National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Sean Conorich conducts COVID-19 rapid testing at the Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Inmates 70 and older at the Utah State Prison got their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday as part of a statewide effort to inoculate older Utahns. 

Meanwhile the Utah Department of Health reported 859 new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths Monday, numbers that continue a downward trend in the seven-day average for new positives.

Medical workers administered the Moderna vaccine to 79 inmates at the prison’s Draper site starting Monday and will continue through the week. The facility houses the state’s oldest and most ill, said Utah Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted. 

“We’re grateful that the opportunity has been made for our population,” Felsted said. Some in the group expressed relief, while others simply said it beats getting the virus, she added.

The announcement follows the deaths of 15 prisoners who had tested positive for COVID-19 as the virus devastated the prison following an initial outbreak in September, infecting nearly 3,000 inmates at its Draper and Gunnison sites. The total inmate population is about 5,500, Felsted said.

Eight of those deceased were in their 70s, and two were in their 80s, according to data provided by the prison. 

Tom Black, a 70-year-old inmate who fell sick with the coronavirus in November, was among those to get a shot Monday. He telephoned his family members to deliver the news in a matter-of-fact tone and talk about potential side effects, said his daughter, Katie Black Wood.

Wood said she’s eager to learn whether the vaccine will thwart each new variant of the virus.

“If they get in the prison, I don’t know if the people will make it the second round,” she said. “And that’s what I’m worried about.”

Prison officials have emphasized that no one is being forced to get the vaccine. It’s up to each inmate to decide whether inoculation is the right choice, but the corrections department is encouraging it. 

“While the vaccine is not mandatory, we are hopeful that many of you will take advantage of this opportunity,” Brian Nielson, the newly appointed executive director of the corrections department, wrote to inmates in a newsletter dated Jan. 22. “Such steps will help us return to normal operations.”

The state considers corrections officers to be first responders, so those employees have already been inoculated, Felsted said. 

The health department has said it will likely be March before the general prison population gets the vaccine. But in the meantime, the next shipments will go to those deemed most susceptible to COVID-19, Nielson wrote in his newsletter.

“More vulnerable and high-risk incarcerated individuals (based initially on age) will likely receive the vaccine first, and hopefully in the next couple months all of you will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated,” Nielson wrote. 

Advocates and families of those incarcerated, including Black’s, have criticized what they have said are a lack of transparency on the prison’s part and significant lapses in medical care for vulnerable inmates who have the coronavirus. 

But the corrections department has countered that no one in its custody is being denied medical care, and said it’s proud of the way employees have stepped up to the challenges posed by the virus. 

Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the state health department, said no decision has been made on vaccinating inmates who are younger than 70. So far, Utah has prioritized health care workers, emergency services personnel, first responders, teachers and school staffs, and those over 70 years old.

Utah has administered 229,575 vaccine doses, including 1,227 reported Monday.

Free rapid testing across state

Also this week, all Utahns can take advantage of free rapid testing for COVID-19 offered around the state by the health department at sites selected because of high positivity and lower testing rates, as well as what untreated wastewater sampling and other surveillance data has shown.

Online registration is encouraged for the tests, which are available to anyone older than 5, even if they do not have any symptoms. The intent is to help more quickly identify those who are infected so they can take steps to help slow the spread.

Because the rapid antigen tests being administered are less sensitive, those who have symptoms and test negative — or don’t have symptoms and test positive — will be referred for a followup PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test that takes longer to analyze and produces more accurate results to confirm.

The health department’s rapid tests are available in Beaver, Carbon, Cache, Duchesne, Emery, Millard, Salt Lake, San Juab, Summit, Tooele and Uintah counties, The Utah National Guard also is assisting with testing in Cache, Davis, Salt Lake and Washington counties.

To locate the nearest testing site and information about when testing is available and how to register, go to the state’s coronavirus website.

The Salt Lake County Health Department is also offering free testing Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., in lot D of the Maverik Center, at the corner of 3100 South and Decker Lake Drive in West Valley City, with registration completed online

Numbers trending ‘in positive direction’

The state health department said more than 1.96 million people have been tested in Utah, an increase Monday of 4,174. The rolling seven-day averages for positive tests is 1,763 per day and 19.2% for percent of positive laboratory tests.

Hudachko said Utah’s count of COVID-19 cases “continues to trend in a positive direction,” with the lowest rolling seven-day average case count since early November, and the lowest percent of positive test results since mid-October.

Utah has now reached 337,264 positive cases, and 459 people are currently hospitalized in the state with COVID-19, with intensive care units operating near capacity. Hudachko said “as vaccines continue to roll out, it’s more important than ever to continue wearing makes, gathering only in small groups, and staying home if sick.”

The death toll has hit 1,597, including the two additional deaths reported Monday, both from Utah County: a woman between 45-64 hospitalized at time of death, and a man between 65-84 also hospitalized.